California’s Reckless Driving Laws

Read about California’s reckless driving laws and the consequences of a conviction.

In California, a person can be convicted of “reckless driving” for driving a vehicle “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Generally, the term “willful” refers to conduct that is purposeful or intentional, rather than accidental.  And “wanton disregard” basically means the person understood the conduct was risky but decided to do it anyway.

(Cal. Veh. Code § 23103 (2016); People v. Schumacher, 194 Cal.App.2d 335 (1961).)

Reckless Driving Penalties

The consequences of a reckless driving conviction depend on the circumstances. But generally, the possible penalties are:

  • Standard reckless driving. Generally, reckless driving is a misdemeanor. Convicted motorists typically face five to 90 days in jail and/or $145 to $1,000 in fines.
  • Reckless driving for commercial purposes. When reckless driving is done to capture images or recordings for commercial purposes (like for a product advertisement), the offense is still a misdemeanor, but enhanced penalties apply. A conviction is punishable with up to six months in jail and a maximum $2,500 in fines.
  • Reckless driving with injuries. Generally, reckless driving offenses that involve injuries to another person are misdemeanors and carry 30 days to six months in jail and/or $200 to $1,000 in fines.
  • Reckless driving involving certain types of injuries. California Vehicle Code section 23105 allows a judge to impose more severe penalties for reckless driving offenses that involve any of the injuries listed in the statute. Included on the list are concussions, a loss of consciousness, bone fractures, brain injuries, and paralysis. An offense that comes under this statute is a “wobbler”—meaning it can be punished as a misdemeanor or a felony. If punished as a misdemeanor, the offense carries the same penalties as those imposed for reckless driving with minor injuries (see above). But when punished as a felony, the driver faces 16 months to three years in prison.

A reckless driving conviction will also add two points to a motorist’s driving record and likely lead to increased insurance rates. And depending on the circumstances, the judge or Department of Motor Vehicles can suspend the motorist’s license for up to six months.

(Cal. Veh. Code §§ 12810(c), 13200, 13201, 13361, 23103(c), 23104, 23105, 40008(a) (2016); Cal. Penal Code § 1170(h) (2016).)

Reckless Driving and DUI Charges (“Wet Reckless”)

In California, it’s possible for a driver who’s charged with driving under the influence (DUI) to plea bargain for a lesser charge. When a DUI is plea bargained down to a reckless driving charge, it’s sometimes called a “wet reckless.”

HOW MUCH TIME WOULD YOU ACTUALLY SPEND IN JAIL?

Generally speaking, sentencing law is complex and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, a statute might list a “minimum” jail sentence that’s longer than the actual amount of time (if any) a defendant will have to spend behind bars. All kinds of factors can affect actual punishment, including the severity of the damage at issue, credits for good in-custody behavior, and jail-alternative work programs.

If you face criminal charges, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. An attorney with command of the rules in your jurisdiction will be able to explain the law as it applies to your situation.

Talk to an Attorney

The consequences of a reckless driving conviction in California can be serious, especially when the offense involved injuries. If you’ve been arrested for or charged with reckless driving, get in contact with an experienced criminal defense attorney. A qualified attorney can explain how the law applies to the facts of your case and help you decide on how best to handle your situation.

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